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Things I wish I'd done in my twenties

A crowd at a music concert raise their hands up into the light

When you’re young, life feels exciting and full of promise; there are cities to explore, romances to be had…

As you edge out of your twenties, you may detect a palpable shift in almost all areas of your life. Perhaps you find it harder to sleep beyond 7am, you feel a little stiffer after a run, and your hangovers are certainly longer and stronger. This isn’t a lament about the process of aging—quite the opposite. The Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote, “One of the privileges of those who’ve avoided dying young is the blessed right to grow old.”

Once you reach your thirties and beyond, it can feel like a relief that the panics and excitements of your twenties have passed. You are free to become more your authentic self, and you care less about what people may think of you.

In the process of becoming who you are, establishing some healthy habits will hold you in good stead to continue to age well. Here are a few gentle suggestions, based on expert advice.

Figure out your food

It’s easy to find whatever you want on the Internet—a new outfit, your vitamins in a ‘wonder’ drink, a life partner—but also a plethora of diets that claim to be the best for you. Plant-based is best! You really need to eat all your macros! Intermittent fasting rules!

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating is an easy way to translate solid nutrition science into real food and achieve a diet that you can enjoy and afford. The guide recommends eating a wide variety of nutritious foods in food-group proportions that are visually represented on a plate. For those who like a bit more detail, there are food-group serve sizes and recommended daily numbers of serves for adults and children.

But we’re not suggesting that you map out each of your daily meals exactly to these specifications—you likely don’t have the time or the inclination to do that—but spending time in your twenties figuring out what food makes you feel good, based on these recommendations, will set you up for good health into your thirties and beyond.

In doing this, create a healthy relationship with food; explore things that you haven’t tried to eat before like maybe some weird mushrooms or a new unpronounceable spice. Figure out what you think is delicious and if you find you only like eating fried chicken, then learn how to make a healthy alternative, and serve it with a healthy salad or lots of steamed vegetables.

It’s not just about nourishing your body—although of course that’s incredibly important—but learning to cook, or further developing your cooking skills in your twenties, is a great way to look after your mental health and an invaluable skill for later in life. You will have a repertoire of recipes that you can whip out for your thirty-year-old dinner parties, or when you get home from your stressful job and want to reach for the meal-delivery app.

Solidify sleeping clean

Even though you can operate on not a lot of sleep as a twenty-something, your future, sleep-deprived self will thank you for creating clean sleep habits when you are young.

While we sleep our body does a lot of work. Our brain processes what happened that day and stores the important stuff and cleans away the less important stuff, allowing for more efficient long-term memory recall. Your hormones are regulated; including those that manage your muscle repair, stress levels (cortisol) and blood sugars.

There are plenty of ways to ensure a good night’s sleep—you can find a whole lot of them here—but the quicker you learn the value of leaving your screens behind when you go to bed, the better. Scrolling temptation is real, so take away the option. Put your phone on charge outside your bedroom and watch your Netflix on the couch. Your bed should be a screen-free zone.

Build the habit of healthy sleep in your twenties, understand the value of sleep and treasure it as you enter your later years.

Love yourself and those around you

A large part of figuring out who you are in your twenties (and hopefully cultivating a healthy serve of love for yourself) is also figuring out who you love. While this is important in romantic relationships, this shouldn’t be your main focus.

If you spend time in your twenties building a network of people who you respect, enjoy spending time with and can go to for advice, you will find that once life becomes slower and likely more serious in your thirties and forties, these relationships will be a solid foundation for you to rely on.

Of course our twenties are often the time when we are working hard to build careers—and this energy should not be discounted, having a career we love is important—but plenty of international studies have shown that it’s the quality of our personal relationships, not the size of our bank balance, which has the greatest effect on our state of wellbeing.

Friendships take work, just like romantic relationships do. But they give you plenty in return—you feel a greater sense of worth and belonging and feel less alone, you feel more confident and as such supported to try new things and learn more about yourself.

Health professionals help—use them

The way you treat your body in your twenties will set you up for the rest of your life. We’ve talked about the importance of fueling your body with the right stuff and now let’s talk about looking after it. Think of your body as a company—you need a solid board of experts to support you in the decisions you make. Choose those board members wisely, and ensure you have some qualified health professionals on there.

Finding a GP who you feel comfortable with in your twenties is no mean feat but nothing good in life comes easily. If you’re lucky enough to have a family doctor who is still available to you, hold them close. It’s invaluable to have someone who is aware of your entire medical history when you go for check-ups or for illness-related visits.

Go to the dentist. They will tell you how regularly you should be going as it depends on factors such as your age, general health, and dental history. Sure, it’s a drag. But do you know what else is a drag? Losing all your teeth before you turn sixty. No one likes the dentist, and while you may not lose all your teeth before you turn sixty, investing in regular dental care when you are young will save you a lot of pain (financial and oral) in your later years. Studies have linked poor oral health with increased risks of cardio-vascular and other diseases.

Let’s talk about sex, baby

One of the best things you can do in your twenties is to prioritise equally your enjoyment of sex, and your safety while you are having it.

Practicing safe sex is in everyone’s best interest—yours, the person you are having sex with, and future sex partners. This generally means using a condom, and if you aren’t using a condom, having open and frank discussions with sexual partners about the risks involved and their sexual and testing history.

Most sexually transmissible infections (STIs) are treatable, but some stay with you for the rest of your life. Having safe sex and regular STI testing during your twenties and well beyond, will help you to have a healthy and enjoyable sex life as you grow older.

Sexual health check-ups are recommended annually for people who are sexually active and more often in some circumstances, for example if you have more than one sexual partner or don’t always use condoms. Getting into the habit of having regular sexual health check-ups is just as important as going to the dentist regularly. Get in the habit while you are young, and it’ll be one less thing to learn as you grow older.

If you are with someone and they make you feel uncomfortable about using condoms, or at any other stage of the encounter, you can withdraw your consent at any time and leave. This includes if you are no longer having a good time, or if you have changed your mind. While this can sometimes be a hard skill to master, mastering consent and being able to express what you want and enjoy sexually in your twenties will significantly improve your future sex life—and help to keep you safe.

As a twenty-year-old, there’s a lot of life to be lived and prioritising doctor visits and safe sex may not be top of your to do list. You may find yourself in your thirties and forties, faced with a large dental bill, or a latent STI, wondering why didn’t someone tell me about this? – You can change that future outcome by taking some of this gentle advice and making some good choices in your younger years.

Your future self will thank you.

Last updated: 15 February 2022